Before even getting to a menu, you are confronted by King James himself on a bench, waxing metaphysical on the trials and tribulations of being a top athlete to the strains of 'Hate Me Now', sampling O Fortuna. While last year’s iteration was lent the auspices of Jay-Z’s gangsta chic, this year the focus is squarely back on the game, the players, and one particular man of the hour, Lebron. In NBA 2K14’s only real new feature, Path To Greatness, you assume the mantle of the most venerated player in the modern game at a turning point in his career. Select Heat Dynasty and he’ll remain as part of the ‘Big Three’ in Miami, continuing to build on his legendary status with the Heat, but if you fancy a bit of speculative future history shenanigans you can choose ‘Fantastic Journey’, which charts the possibilities if he were to finish out the current season with the Heat and put himself on the market again.
The first option is entertaining enough, with Lebron himself giving a little preamble before each match-up, but it’s the second option where the devs have really gone to town, creating a whole storyline and hours of specific commentary for it. In this what-if scenario, a new fictional rookie, John Trice, arrives as the number one pick for the Washington Wizards and quickly declares himself as James’s successor. Rosters get shaken up big-time and some really interesting hypothetical teams get thrown together, culminating in a final showdown against the pretender ‘King John’ leading a new-look Lakers featuring Marc Gasol, Kevin Love & Damian Lillard. This mode is exclusive to the current console generation and won’t be featured on the Xbox One or PS4, so if you think you could guide Lebron to glory and those precious NBA title rings, now’s your chance. And hey, even if you don’t worship at the court of King James, it’s cool to see the possibilities that could arise for some of the other players in the league. As if giving him his own mode and putting him on the box art wasn’t enough, James also got to pick the soundtrack this time around, and he’s done a fair, if slightly predictable job. New hits like Blurred Lines and Get Lucky sit alongside some classic jams from Kanye, Gorillaz and main track, Drake’s haunting ‘Started From The Bottom’.
Elsewhere in the game not much has changed, although this is by no means a bad thing as NBA 2K13 was pretty darn spiffy already. Right stick operation has been slightly amended again, this time to allow for flashy no-look passes as well as shots. Sticklers used to the old style may protest, but after a few hours’ play to familiarise, it really is a beneficial amendment. Training and practice modes are still present, and it’s advisable to get schooled up before you play proper, whether you’re a complete noob or just need to know what has changed. Quick-plays have also had a once-over; a quick squeeze of the left bumper when attacking will instruct your team to begin running an appropriate play for the situation, rather than having to select one from the menu. You can still do this of course, but for an experience that flows better it’s easy to run with the play presented to you.
Upon starting you are thrown into character creation mode, where you craft the player to be used and improved in the myCareer mode. As before, with the change in perspective from horizontal to vertical, assuming control of one and only one player, it’s a very different playing experience to controlling a whole team. Plays and chances have to be carefully picked, as one too many duff passes or wild shots can have you relegated to the bench. Sadly, no matter which likeness you sculpt for yourself, in the interviews and other off-court chat they will have the same cheesy voice as always, which can get grating after a long season.
Other modes like Association, the collectable myTeam mode and outdoor Blacktop are back with few if any changes, along with the virtual currency awarded for winning games and progressing with your own character in the myCareer mode. This can be used to purchase booster packs for your myTeam or better duds for your on-screen avatar. Rosters, court styles, player transfers etc. continue to be reflected in-game as they happen in reality, provided you have an internet connection e.g. New Orleans are now the Pelicans. The current night's real-life match-ups are available to pick from the first screen to get you courtside ASAP. Once again 2K’s TV-style presentation is exemplary and probably the best of any sports game around. Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr return with courtside correspondent Doris Burke with a staggering fifty hours plus of highly detailed in-game commentary that rarely repeats and really lends to the authenticity. Combined with reams of variable analysis and detailed halftime reports and it’s as close to the real deal as you’re likely to get. Super-slick and speedy transitions mean you're never waiting to begin a play if you're too impatient for all the big game night razzmatazz to unfold.
On court, it’s readily apparent that the defence plays a much bigger role in the game than its immediate predecessor. Power players just can’t simply charge into the paint and dunk, a suitable opening has to be found and the AI can be really canny when it comes to closing them up and reacting to the player in general. Players in the right place catch more loose balls and the game is more balanced overall. Little icons appear beside players indicating their strengths; they’re not present all the time, but just when you might need reminding at the beginning of a play that Ray Allen or Steve Nash might be the guy to pass to for a three attempt. In terms of presentation NBA 2K14 can’t be faulted; player appearances and shot animations are spot-on, and crowds will even chant team-specific material. Fans of the Dream Team from NBA 2K13 may be disappointed at its departure but for the first time in the NBA 2K games a selection of teams from the Euro League are available to play, in addition to an expanded selection of classic teams from NBA history like the '64 Celtics, '89 Bulls and '95 Sonics. Online play is smooth and seamless, with your rival being picked from a pool of roughly statistically equivalent players, whether playing with real NBA or FIBA teams or your own custom fantasy myTeam.
If you’re upgrading your console soon you may want to hold off as a next-gen version is due to drop shortly, but if you’re into hoops and plan on sticking with your current machine into the new year and beyond, this is a must-buy, even if you already have the previous game in the series. Who knows what the next console generation will bring, with 2K marching triumphantly onwards and EA bringing back NBA Live for the first time in five years, but for now, this is just the best version of the best videogame basketball experience you’re going to find.